In Footsteps of Argentina's New First Lady


By: Larry Rohter

The New York Times, February 1, 2002

Buenos Aires, Jan. 28, She balks at any comparison to her idol Eva Perón, saying, "there can be only one Evita." But Hilda Duhalde, Argentina's new first lady, seems to be everywhere these days: sitting at her husband's side at cabinet meetings, running the Social Development Ministry, organizing a new government welfare program for the unemployed, ministering to the poor.

The political descendants of Juan Perón are back in power, and with them the concept of "government by couple" that the general and his wife, Eva, pioneered more than half a century ago. Less than a month after Eduardo Duhalde took office, his wife, whose nickname is Chiche, has already established herself as what the local press calls the country's "de facto vice president" and "superminister" in charge of all social programs.

Outside Argentina, Juan Perón is generally remembered as a tyrant who crushed all opposition and squandered the country's wealth. Here, however, many recall the Perón years as a golden era when the government built low-cost housing, reduced working hours, offered subsidized vacations, capped food prices, and generally catered to factory and farm workers.

"My parents have always told me that compared to today, ordinary people were much better off back then," said Marta Scolari, a grocery store cashier. "What Argentina lacks nowadays are leaders who really care about and defend the interests of the people as Evita did. So if Chiche Duhalde will do that, how can I object?"

To outsiders, such attitudes might seem to reveal Argentina's enduring illusions about the grandeur of its tortured history. Few nations with so much potential have faltered so often, yet Argentines seldom seem to take the lessons of the past to heart.

At least, the country's latest economic crisis has not brought another of the military coups that darkened Argentina's past. But the country's ability to build a stable future free of myths like the one surrounding Evita Perón remains in doubt.

Mr. Duhalde himself signaled his wife's importance at his televised swearing-in ceremony early this month. In a break with tradition that was widely commented on, he summoned his wife to his side as he donned the presidential sash and then had her sign the formal registry of the act as an official witness.

The government initially announced that Mrs. Duhalde was to be made minister of social development. But after a public outcry about nepotism, it quickly withdrew the nomination, even suggesting that it had never been made. But Mrs. Duhalde has pressed on undeterred, confident that it is her destiny to exercise influence even without a title.

"I have to concern myself with the poor," Mrs. Duhalde insisted in an interview with leading Argentine newspapers over the weekend. "That is my role here," to "worry about those who I believe still do not have a voice in Argentina, even though there are millions of them."

Mrs. Duhalde declined to be interviewed for this article. But in Argentine newspapers she has defined herself as the champion of the same oppressed masses who were Eva Perón's constituency, and in much the same language as her venerated predecessor.

"My attitude is one that I would say is masochistic, an attitude of serving until it hurts, and it hurts a lot," she said. Argentina is full of provinces that "are resigned to their poverty,” she added, and "that is terrible, no?"

Her words directly echoed Eva Perón, who was just 33 when she succumbed to cancer in 1952. Shortly before her death, Evita proclaimed that her love for the Argentine people "hurts my soul, hurts my flesh and burns my nerves."

Whether the first lady's revival of Evita's style will be effective or merely hopelessly nostalgic is also an open question.

"There are very few models or niches for women in politics in Argentina other than the one provided by Evita," said Javier Auyero, author of a book published last year about Eva Perón's legacy. "There is no other way than trying to perform the role of the standard-bearer of the humble, or the bridge of love between the leader, whether Perón or Duhalde, and the people."

Hilda Beatriz González de Duhalde, 55, was born and raised in the ardently Peronist suburbs of Buenos Aires and has insisted on continuing to live there rather than move into the official presidential residence. Her father was a worker in a soap factory, but she lived with her mother, a seamstress, until she married Mr. Duhalde, a dashing young lifeguard and law student who first spotted her at a public swimming pool.

"I remember when Evita died," Mrs. Duhalde said in a 1997 interview. "I was in bed and my mother came to tell me. I started to cry because mother was crying. We hugged each other and cried."

Mabel Muller, a Peronist senator, has been a friend of Mrs. Duhalde's since both were high-school students. She recalled that when they taught together in an elementary school in a working-class neighborhood some 30 years ago, they often discussed the legacy of Eva Perón and how it should be applied.

"For all of the women of our generation, Eva Perón is the model of what a woman should be, politically and socially, and we continue to nurture a great admiration for her," Ms. Muller said in an interview. "As Chiche understands it, that model continues to be relevant in a time of technology and globalizaton because it is based on social justice and love for the most needy."

Mrs. Duhalde's direct involvement in politics dates back to her husband's tenure as governor of the province of Buenos Aires, which surrounds the capital.

As director of his Human Development Council, she organized a "Life Plan" that recruited 30,000 women volunteers to distribute food to the poor, in what one newspaper here calls "a program with the purest Peronist lineage."

Once a week, the volunteers, known as manzaneras, or block captains, would deliver milk, eggs, sugar and cereal to 600,000 pregnant women, nursing mothers and children under 5. Though there may never have been an explicit exchange of favors for votes, Mrs. Duhalde soon made herself synonymous with the benefits being distributed.

In 1997, Mrs. Duhalde ran for Congress and won, leading a Peronist party faction that espoused a philosophy called "Evitaism." The rally starting the movement and her candidacy was held at a football stadium filled with her block captains, who sat under a gigantic portrait of Evita Perón and listened to a woman dressed as Evita sing "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina."

"It's not the same to give someone a bicycle or a wheelchair, a once in a lifetime favor like Evita used to do, as to provide everyday access to food," said Dr. Auyero, who is a professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Stonybrook. "In Chiche's case, you depended on her all the time, so the link was much more personal."

Mrs. Duhalde has said that her "Life Program" drew its inspiration from similar efforts in Costa Rica, Chile during the presidency of Salvador Allende, and Cuba, where she met with Fidel Castro and observed his Committees to Defend the Revolution. Besides food distribution, the program eventually came to include money to help the poor repair their homes, the elderly to obtain pensions and the sick to be provided with medical care.

But applying such ideas in today's Argentina strikes many as fanciful. Mr. Duhalde admits that Argentina is bankrupt, with the country's creditors on the lookout for the slightest sign of loose spending. Questions and doubts about Mrs. Duhalde's qualifications and administrative ability have been raised.

"There's no way" it can work, said Rosendo Fraga, director of the Center for a New Majority, a nonpartisan political research organization here. "This is just one more sign of the government's desperation."

But Mrs. Duhalde says she is determined to restore the role of first lady to its former prominence, in her own way.

"How am I different from the wives of other presidents?" she asked in a newspaper interview. "I know what I'm talking about, I know the social realm, I've worked in it all my life. Beyond that, my husband respects my opinion. I couldn't be here and not do anything. If I didn't have work to do, I'd invent some."

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